Rugby Union: Tigers on the brink

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Sale 17

Leicester 41

IT WAS ALL so typically Leicester, right up to and beyond the end. A five-try win over potentially tricky opponents in the bag, the Tigers re-emerged from their dressing-room a couple of minutes after the final whistle - not for a title-winning lap of honour, but for the ritual warm-down to soothe tired limbs. Mathematics dictate that the champagne must stay corked, possibly until Leicester's next and last home match against West Hartlepool on 16 May. All other good sense suggests that Dean Richards and his brilliantly prepared, thoroughly focused band have added a third championship win, in the guise of Allied Dunbar Premiership One, to their titles of 1988 and 1995.

Richards's image has always been more dreadnought than breakneck, but the sheer pace that his team were intent on playing at yesterday took the breath away. Sale, with a good run of results including a win here over Saracens to inspire them, were prepared to respond in kind. But class told long before the last knockings, and most of it came from Leicester.

Sale scored three tries, two of them in the first half, which was an above-average performance by those who take on the Tigers. Only 26 tries had been conceded by Leicester in their 23 Premiership matches before yesterday. Bearing in mind that six of those came in one match against Wasps, during World Cup qualifying time last November, the extent of Leicester's miserliness in defence is truly impressive.

Good reason, then, for Sale to pat themselves on the back for two nicely worked scores before the interval. Even more so because both efforts rewarded a spirit of adventure which might not be expected from players who, by virtue of being hit with pay-cuts, have suffered the same sort of problems as their counterparts at Bedford, Richmond, London Scottish and West Hartlepool in this troubled season.

After four minutes, in immediate response to an opening penalty goal for Leicester by Tim Stimpson, Sale's captain Jim Mallinder broke free with a neat chip-and-catch and while Leicester dithered in closing down Phil Greening, the hooker had time to send Jos Baxendell spinning out of a tackle to the line.

That momentary hesitation by Leicester was a rare duff note in a first half they played at a ferociously upbeat tempo. Sale's second try, scored by Shane Howarth from a snappy move of a scrum after 38 minutes, came after Leicester had stamped their authority with three tries of their own.

They did not have it all their own way and in the scrums it was not quite as easy as ABC for the England trio of Graham Rowntree, Richard Cockerill and Darren Garforth, together for the 150th time. Yet in all other phases Leicester's speed of handling and thought mesmerised the opposition.

At the heart of most of this were two key performers in Martin Corry and Austin Healey, making his first start since his eight-week ban for stamping. Aside from a couple of astute foreign signings, it is the addition of Corry to the Leicester pack which has been most effective in their domination of this long and fractured campaign.

Healey nipped over after tapping a penalty to himself, the Canadian winger Dave Lougheed bundled into the corner and Corry split off a driving maul to put Leicester 23-5 up before Howarth went in for Sale.

Again, it would not be Leicester without a try or two from driven line- outs, and the superb touch-kicking of Stimpson led to two such scores from the tireless Neil Back. Sale scored again through their new England cap, Barrie-Jon Mather, 10 minutes from time, before chants of "boring" greeted a final penalty goal by Stimpson. Leicester are not the first worthy champions to be accused of that and it won't worry them one little bit.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); M Moore, J Baxendell, C Yates, B-J Mather; S Howarth, R Smith; D Bell, P Greening, D Theron, S Raiwalui, C Murphy, P Anglesea, D O'Cuinneagain, A Sanderson.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd, C Joiner, J Stuart, D Lougheed; P Howard, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F van Heerden, L Moody, M Corry, N Back.

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax)